Wednesday 18 July 2018

When God came up against Gaelforce on the Reek

Mickey Lynch, from Camlough, Armagh, and Joe Reilly from Virgina, Co Cavan, climbing Croagh Patrick. Photo: Conor McKeown
Mickey Lynch, from Camlough, Armagh, and Joe Reilly from Virgina, Co Cavan, climbing Croagh Patrick. Photo: Conor McKeown
Noel and Rita Corcoran with their seven-year-old daughter Laura climbing Croagh Patrick. Photo: Conor McKeown

Caroline Crawford at Croagh Patrick

When God met Gaelforce. Croagh Patrick has long been known as a mecca for Christian pilgrims, but they were joined by streams of adventurers who were carrying out their own form of worship over the weekend.

As pilgrims gathered to mark the Feast of the Assumption on Saturday, more than 1,000 runners taking part in Gaelforce West struggled up the Reek.

After it emerged that the decade-old adventure race had been scheduled on the same day as a holy day of pilgrimage, both groups scrambled to change their times, thus ensuring that everyone could make use of the mountain.

But the clash has again highlighted what many see as the overuse of a mountain that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

The Irish Independent has now learned that a review of the state of Croagh Patrick is to begin next month.

Tourism Minister Michael Ring plans to gather all interested groups together for a "proper review" of the mountain.

Mr Ring said he would invite groups with vested interests in the mountain to meet with Mayo County Council and the OPW to put in place a detailed and structured approach for conservation works.

"The fact is that work needs to be done and we need to work out exactly what we need to do," he said.

A report from mountain expert Elfyn Jones in 2012 found that the cost to repair the eroded sections would reach €1.5m.

"There is no point just talking about this. We need a proper review and I plan to begin that in September. The money will be found.

"There is already revenue from the car park at the foot of the mountain which is going to the county council, so the money will have to be provided," Mr Ring said.

The Mayo TD said he was delighted to see the "great co-operation" between adventure runners and pilgrims over the weekend.

Apart from natural erosion, some locals place the blame for the excessive damage at the feet of the adventure races.

Westport parish priest Fr Charlie McDonnell said he has been aware of erosion as a concern for 30 years.

"Traditionally the mountain was only used three times a year but footfall has increased.

"But before it was a Christian mountain, it was a holy Pagan mountain and people are very cognisant of that. Everyone needs to be respectful and everyone needs space," he added.

Fr McDonnell said there should be "some kind of regulation" and an overseeing of the mountain but stressed this would not be helped by groups playing off against one another.

"This is a very serious issue and it has been a problem since the 1980s and it does seem this erosion is getting worse in the past eight to 10 years. We need to look at ways to deal with that and we've been doing that since last March," he added.

Ciara Young of Gaelforce said they would welcome any safety works that might need to be carried out.

"From our point of view, 30,000 go up on Reek Sunday and 1,100 to 1,200 went up on Saturday," she said.

Ms Young said safety had been a priority for the event for the past decade.

"Erosion is an issue and if something needs to be changed to deal with this, it needs to be done," she added.

Those climbing the mountain over the weekend had other things on their minds though. Many pilgrims were unaware that the traditional noon Mass had been put back to 2pm. They arrived at the mountain as hoards of runners were struggling up to make the cut-off point for starting their run to the summit. Usually the cut-off is in the afternoon, this year it was moved to 11.30am.

One such Gaelforce participant, Sharon Sweeney, just made the cut-off in time.

"I just made it, I went hard to get here on time. Usually the cut-off is not until around 2pm, so it was a push to get here," she said.

She said she was too busy concentrating on her goal to see many pilgrims but hoped the atmosphere would stay positive, adding: "Anyone should have the right to go where they want."

Also enjoying the mountain were the Corcoran family, who had set off from the pilgrimage. Rita and Noel Corcoran were bringing their seven-year-old daughter Laura on the climb for the first time but didn't realise there would be dozens of runners alongside them.

"We were aiming for the 12 o'clock Mass, we didn't realise it had been changed.

"We didn't want to bring Laura on Reek Sunday because we thought it would be too busy.

"We didn't know about the race; we wouldn't have taken Laura up today if we'd known there was a race on. It just makes it a bit harder to keep an eye on her," said Rita.

But as the two sides met on the mountain, the mood remained good.

Fr McDonnell said he was glad that the mix-up could be sorted out to accommodate everyone.

Irish Independent

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